Virtual events may be missing a single element that could redeem the whole experience

Instead of travelling to conference venues, we're now as glued to our screens as ever. There's still a chance to bring some of the fun back

The last in-person conference I attended before COVID-19 broke out already felt like the beginning of the end.

Attendees wandered around a convention centre where the exhibit floor had obviously been shrunk down to less than two thirds of the originally-intended size. For once, there were plenty of seats in common areas and no lineups for food. A few people seemed to hesitate as they remembered not to shake hands.

The next day, the conference was shut down after it was discovered someone had contracted the virus a week earlier in the same venue. Since then, it’s been kind of like this:

In some cases the webinars are Zoom calls, in others they use more sophisticated platforms. Sometimes they are full-day virtual events, with keynotes and breakout sessions. A few have spanned six to even eight weeks.

What they all have in common, at least as I’ve experienced them, is the drabness of watching someone in their living room or other part of their home speaking directly into a camera. Any sense of community — of belonging — is relegated to a chat window.

Given how much time I, like many business professionals, have traditionally spent attending conferences, the prospect of carrying on this way into 2021 and beyond was enough to fill me with despair.

Until this week.

It may not be Earth-shattering to some people, but I recognized an opportunity to dramatically improve these virtual events and, in doing so, recognize what they contribute to the overall customer experience.

Before I get into what that opportunity involves, I think it’s necessary to step back and consider where events — physical or otherwise — have been positioned within customer journeys to date, and why rethinking that may be one of the first steps to making them better.

Demand Gen Vs. Customer Success

As someone who has hosted roundtables, webinars. full-day and multi-day events, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a lot of companies who have placed great value on what conferences can deliver.

If the conference is organized by a third party (like an industry association or event producer), those speaking and exhibiting tend to be there because it might be a way to attract new customers and potentially remind prospects they’ve nurtured that they have products and services worth consideration.

If the conference is organized and produced by a single company (for a customer or user event), there’s often a hope to move prospects along the funnel and to encourage existing customers to buy into a product roadmap and possibly upgrade their existing investments.

Most of the time, in other words, events and conferences are seen as a demand generation activity, something that should happen early in the customer journey. That may be why I’ve seldom seen events considered a high priority among CX leaders, or even mentioned in the research. And yet, I bet that in some cases more customers are likely to come to an event (at least in B2B) than to contact the customer service team.

If brands start to see events as occupying a larger role in post-sale activity — customer success, for example — their value increases as a potential contributor to loyalty. And this should only make sense because it’s more of an “experience” than almost anything else a company does.

Until COVID-19, a conference gave you something to see, hear, touch, smell and sometimes even taste.

The budgets allocated for events was probably such that, in the panic amid lockdown, many companies felt the show needed to go on, even if a virtual alternative was far from ideal. Some would have been working around punishing timelines, and the fact they carried them off at all is laudable.

Unfortunately, the sameness of most virtual event experiences risks damaging their effectiveness in both demand generation or customer success. My reasons may be subjective, but I’ve heard them from plenty of peers:

  1. It’s no fun to sit in front of a screen all day, when we used to go to conferences in part to get a break from being in front of a screen all day.
  2. It’s no fun to lose all the side benefits of a conference — the free concert, the trade show merch, the chance to wander through a different city at night, and to be able to immerse yourself in learning for a day or two.
  3. It’s no fun to be sitting through a virtual event in isolation from other attendees, where laughter or any other reaction is restricted to an emoji. And even the best keynote speakers rarely “command a room” as well without a live audience.
  4. It’s no fun to do most of the digital replicas of the conference experience many platforms have set up, like virtual exhibit halls or virtual networking areas. (The UIs of most of these platforms are also, in a word, ugly).
  5. It’s no fun.

Maybe that last one is redundant, and conferences were always supposed to be “work,” but without some kind of energy — manifested in the way a venue is set up, music, food or other elements — there’s less enticement to participate and feel engaged.

This could help explain why — besides the fact that most conferences are most important to the firm producing it than the attendees — registration costs have been almost uniformly waived.

The longer the current situation persists, brands may have to think about charging again. This post from my colleague Mark on LinkedIn offered some good food for thought in that area:

What would make it fun, I wonder? The answer proved to be a lot closer to home.

From The Church To The Runway -To Home

For the past several years my wife — an Anglican priest —has been running a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for young children. These are essentially day camps where they learn about religion in a fun way during the summer.

After COVID-19 hit, she began talking about making a virtual camp. I told her it was a horrible idea, and related what I’d gone through with virtual events so far.

She listened, but as usual she made her own decision, and it proved to be the right one.

Instead of a full-day camp, for the past two weeks her church and a partner church have been running a VBS that runs for about an hour and a half, over Zoom. There are videos, people speaking and leading discussions, breakout sessions and lots of songs.

I had doubted most kids would sit still through all this, and would need their parents to monitor them (which would defeat the point). Instead, they have loved it so much one little girl was crying when a particular session came to an end.

Though a lot of this could be attributed to the leaders, there was another element I hadn’t been aware of when this was being planned.

She hadn’t told me about the bags.

Before the VBS began, the volunteers had meet in a small group, stayed six feet apart and put together a bag for each child. It included snacks (like a fruit rollup), handouts, small plastic gizmos that reflected some of the key takeaways, and supplies to make crafts.

Making these crafts, eating these snacks — simply being told when to pull them out of the bag — changed the experience entirely for those coming to this VBS. They had something to hold, something that would remain theirs, something to do.

Around the same time, I learned about a menswear collection that was staged virtually by Loewe’s. All the Paris fashion shows had to be done online this year, which are arguably one of the most experiential aspects of that industry.

Instead of trying to replicate the usual runway experience, however, creative director Jonathan Anderson offered something he called a “show in a box,” where key influencers and the media were sent a container whose contents included a mask, dried flowers, fabric samples and other items. An article on L’Officiel described it in more detail:

(The box includes a) booklet that tells some of the inspirations of the collection: from the work of Claes Oldemburg to the image of Walter Pfeiffer. The looks and bags become modular 3D models for a 360 degree view, while the lookbook that brings together all the looks of the men’s collection and the women’s pre-collection is printed on a block of paper in vertical format. The shoes become postcards, while the sunglasses are wearable, thanks to the realization on paper with perforated edges that allows you to detach the new models and try them on…

Following the subdivisions of Loewe Show-in-a-box you get to the soundtrack of the parade, a portable (perfectly functioning) cardboard turntable that allows manual musical reproduction of the narration of Dr. James Fox.

Reading about how various attendees made these sunglasses and played with other items from the box made me jealous. It also convinced me they probably engaged more deeply with the Loewe’s collection than any other that’s been shown so far.

It may not seem feasible to offer similar strategies for the kinds of conferences and events most businesses attend, but that’s only if they remain wide open to anyone with a pulse. Certainly the cost of making such materials and mailing them can’t be as bad as the expense of an in-person event, or investing in one of the virtual event platforms.

There’s also the risk that creating physical tie-ins to a virtual event will eventually become too commonplace, hokey or irrelevant. However I’d argue there is the same risks in a lot of physical event experiences already, but we didn’t abandon those creative opportunities until Coronavirus hit because there was always a chance someone would make use of a venue, a stage or a trade show booth.

In the pivot to digital events and conferences we may have overlooked the power of the tactile in making it an experiencer that’s more sensory, and therefore memorable.

Doing something similar to the Loewe’s show or even my wife’s VBS would mean thinking beyond trinkets and crafts to hard copy materials that could be used as part of a workshop, or perhaps turned into something that could be put on someone’s desk later to remind them of the takeaways as they continue working from home.

It may be some time before we can show up in person to events again, but that doesn’t mean the experience should be a completely disembodied one. Making virtual webinars and conferences a little more fun could be as simple as giving us something to hold on to — besides hope.

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